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October 21, 2020+Sam Abrams+Amna Khalid
+Campus Climate+Viewpoint Diversity

Are Colleges and Universities Too Liberal? What the Research Says About the Political Composition of Campuses and Campus Climate

“Is Academe Awash in Liberal Bias?” This is one of many recent headlines trying to grapple with a question that we’ve been debating for decades: are colleges and universities dominated by liberals? Over the past few years, charges that colleges and universities are “about Radical Left Indoctrination” have come from several quarters, including from the highest echelons of our government, making this a question that merits serious attention.

A number of studies have tried to answer this question but most of them make two mistakes. First, they generally only look at one campus constituency, either students or faculty, and use that to extrapolate about the state of campus climate more broadly. Second, they assume a causal relationship between skew and bias. In other words, they take it as a given that, say, an overrepresentation of liberal faculty necessarily indicates a liberal bias.

As two professors with differing political orientations (Abrams identifies as leaning to the right of center and Khalid leans more to the left) we decided to offer a summary of what the data tell us about (a) the current political composition (i.e. skew) in higher education and (b) what the research says about the tenor of campus climate in terms of ideological diversity. In order to get an accurate picture of the ideological composition of academe we chose to look at studies about the political orientation of the three main constituencies on campuses, namely faculty, students, and administrators side-by-side. To address the second question we triangulate different kinds of research, such as surveys about campus climate, as a way to gain a better understanding of how open our campuses are to diverse viewpoints.

The data for three campus constituencies unequivocally show that liberals are considerably overrepresented on university and college campuses. And the research on campus climate reveals a decrease in openness to non-liberal viewpoints. But it is important to decouple these two issues; the political leanings of academics cannot be seen as directly determining the state of campus discourse. In other words, we should be careful not to assume that the mere disparities in the political composition of campus communities are responsible for shaping campus climate.


Neil Gross and Solon Simmons’s study of a nationally representative sample of over 1400 professors published in 2006 and capturing data even earlier is often seen as the definitive word on the political leanings of the professoriate. While their research yielded interesting data, it was fielded right before the extreme liberal lurch took off in the mid-2000s. As such, they missed the huge shift to the left in our nation’s centers for learning. For this reason we have chosen to look at what more recent studies tell us about political representation in higher education.

Also to note: studies based on partisan registration of faculty members which use the lopsided ratio of registered Democrats to Republicans as a way to emphasize the liberal skew among professors are not the most sophisticated means for gauging attitudes of faculty. These data do not capture the range and nuance of positions along the political spectrum; especially in our hyper-polarized times registered party affiliation is likely to present a distorted and partial picture.

The HERI approach that asks how faculty members self-identify across the political spectrum gives us a better sense of the ideological leanings among the professoriate. It powerfully shows that the number of faculty on the right is far outweighed by those who identify as moderate or on the left. In 1989-1990, when HERI first fielded this survey, 42% of faculty identified as being on the left, 40% were moderate, and another 18% were on the right. This is not a normal curve – it is a clear lean to the left.

Almost three decades later in 2016-2017, HERI found that 60% of the faculty identified as either far left or liberal compared to just 12% being conservative or far right. In 1989, the liberal: conservative ratio of faculty was 2.3. So in less than 30 years the ratio of liberal identifying faculty to conservative faculty had more than doubled to 5.

Compare this to the 5-point liberal-conservative poll for the US population, which shows only minor changes over time and an appreciably different curve. In the fall of 1989, 26% of Americans were on the liberal side of the spectrum, 42% were moderate, and the remaining 29% described themselves as conservative. This is a normal distribution and shows a tendency to cluster toward the center. Three decades later, the numbers do not look all that different. Thirty one percent of Americans state that they are conservative or very conservative, 43% are moderate, and the 24% are liberal or very liberal. The American population as a whole went from a 0.9 liberal: conservative ratio to a 0.8 – this is a minor change and shows that the nation as a whole leaned a bit to the right during this time period while college and university faculty lunged toward to the left.

Moreover, the data on the American population as a whole confirm two well-known robust findings from political science; the first is the relative stability and robustness of ideology in the electorate. The second is the general trend toward centrism. That is not the case with faculty whatsoever. As Phillip Magness recently pointed out, the evidence that faculty lean heavily to the left is so clear that any claims to the contrary must necessarily be based on a gross misinterpretation of the data.

The research on the ideological orientation of students uncovers a similar imbalance. Three weeks ago FIRE released the largest free speech survey of college students conducted to date of almost 20,000 students across 55 colleges and universities, both public and private. According to their findings just over a quarter of the surveyed students identified as conservative to some degree compared to 50% who are liberal.

New data from the Survey Center on American Life at the American Enterprise Institute compares the ideological breakdown of undergraduate students to the Gen Z (Americans between ages 18 and 24) population and the American population as a whole. Among Gen Z the breakdown is 42% liberal and 19% conservative — showing that there are actually more conservatives on campuses than in the Gen Z population more generally. But the representation of conservative students on campus is still below that of the American population (see graph below); conservative students are a minority on campuses and there is a marked liberal skew.

Source: www.aei.org/op-eds/some-good-news-about-free-speech-from-our-undergraduates/

When it comes to college and university administrators, whose ranks have grown dramatically over the past two decades, there is unfortunately not much research to draw on. The best picture we have comes from Abrams’s 2017 survey of a nationally representative sample of roughly 900 “student-facing” administrators. He found that liberal staff members outnumber their conservative counterparts by the astonishing ratio of 12:1. Only 6% of campus administrators identified as conservative to some degree, while 71% classified themselves as liberal or very liberal. Of the three constituencies on campus, the political skew of administrators is the most marked.

As Abrams wrote in The New York Times in 2016, “It appears that a fairly liberal student body is being taught by a very liberal professoriate — and socialized by an incredibly liberal group of administrators.” Taken together the data clearly illustrate that liberals are overrepresented in the faculty as well as among the students and administrators.


The question of whether colleges and universities are dominated by any particular ideology continues to be of interest because of the implications it may have for determining the tenor of campus discourse. Some analyses would take the dominance of liberals within the academy as a definitive indicator of bias in the academy. However, it is simplistic to draw a 1:1 connection between the two as there many factors other than the over representation of liberal faculty -- such as the role of social media, targeted trolling, and peer pressure -- that influence campus climate.

As two professors with different political leanings we know that we make a concerted effort to expose our students to a whole range of viewpoints. And we know many faculty who do the same. So the liberal leanings of professors should not necessarily be read as indicators of colleges and universities being hostile or unwelcoming of non-liberal perspectives.

Having said that, we also know that there are professors who are not necessarily as thoughtful about helping their students explore and wrestle with opposing points of view. So while the strong liberal bent of professors is certainly one of the factors that likely contributes and conduces to the narrowing of acceptable viewpoints on campus, it would be misguided to see it as the root cause. Before delving into the causes more, let’s see what the research tells us about campus climate.

Over the last few years there have been a number of surveys to assess bias and willingness to share views on controversial issues among the student population. In 2018, the Buckley Program at Yale surveyed a national sample of 800 undergraduates and found that more than half (54%) reported they “often” felt intimidated by their peers on campus.” Breaking this down further, 62% of those students who identified as conservative “often” felt silenced. Given the progressive impulses on campuses this much may be expected. However, 53% of both moderate and liberal students also reported feeling uncomfortable sharing their ideas.

The findings of the fall 2019 Heterodox Academy’s Campus Expression Survey of over 1500 students uncovered similar trends. Students were asked how comfortable they were sharing their views on six topics: politics, race, religion, sexuality, gender, and noncontroversial issues. With the exception of religion, for all other topics Republican students reported being more reluctant than Democrats and Independents and were markedly more hesitant to share their views on politics, race, sexuality and gender -- see table below:

Source: Stiksma, M. (2020). Understanding the Campus Expression Climate: Fall 2019. Heterodox Academy.

The Knight Foundation’s 2019 survey of over 4,400 undergraduates on the state of collegiate student expression shed more light on these troubling trends: 68% felt silenced because “their campus climate precludes students from expressing their true opinions because their classmates might find them offensive.”

And most recently the aforementioned FIRE free speech survey of almost 20,000 college students confirmed that self-censorship on campuses is prevalent: Six out of ten college students say they have kept quiet due to fear of how others would respond. Breaking this down further, the largest group on campus which self-censors is “strong Republicans” (73%) and the lowest is “strong Democrats” (52%). These findings are in many ways a continuation and deepening of trends from 2016 and 2017 when conservative students reported self-censoring more than their liberal counterparts.

Student willingness to use violence and engage in behavior to explicitly stop speech is another area where the FIRE report uncovers disturbing trends. Those identifying as extremely liberal said violence to stop a speech or event from occurring on campus was “always” or “sometimes” acceptable at a rate double than of students identifying as extremely conservative: 13% to 6%. More than a quarter of extremely liberal respondents said it is “rarely” acceptable, compared to 8% of extremely conservative respondents.

One of the most interesting findings in terms of political bias in the FIRE report comes from comparing conservative student ratings of institutions with liberal student ratings. What emerged is that even when conservatives rank a predominantly liberal institution highly in terms of being open to speech, they find themselves self-censoring. University of Chicago was ranked highly by both Liberals (1st) and Conservatives (3rd). Overall less than half of the students report self-censoring (44%). But when broken down by political leaning 82% of Conservatives report holding back their views compared to 53% of Moderates and 40% of Liberals. As one student at Chicago noted: “[I am] afraid to disagree with certain liberal talking points because even if I do not agree with the conservative side either I feel like I will be rejected for not being ‘woke’ enough.”

It’s not just the students who are biting their tongues on campus. Faculty too are hesitant to freely share their views. As we have seen in this current school year already, the cost for professors can be high. Even those with tenure are deeply concerned as viewpoints that are not part of the progressive wave or do not publicly comply with liberal norms that dominate are not welcome. As such, many professors are now afraid to speak their minds as the professional and personal consequences to them can be severe.

In 2017, Abrams conducted a national survey of over 900 faculty and found that two-thirds of conservative professors simply avoided sharing their opinions because of fear of negative reactions from students and peers compared to just one-third of liberals. This significant difference is strong evidence that viewpoint diversity is being severely curtailed. Conservative professors – already an endangered minority on campus – are well aware of the possible ramifications of sharing their views and fear professional repercussions for disagreeing with their liberal faculty and administrative colleagues. A group of Sarah Lawrence students came for Abrams, demanding his resignation, apologies for actions he never committed, and a slew of other institutional changes. Abrams is among a long list of faculty who have been attacked, cancelled or forced to resign and this new dynamic is not a secret whatsoever.

Increasingly the climate on campus is determined not just by faculty and students. With the rapid growth of the administrative positions on campuses it is hard to find an area of campus where this professional class does not play a role. As many colleges and universities have moved to a model in which teaching and learning is seen as a 24/7 endeavor including community colleges, engagement with students is occurring as much — if not more — in residence halls and student centers as it is in classrooms. Small wonder then that many of the free-speech controversies in the past few years--at places like Yale, Stanford and the University of Delaware--have concerned events that happened in student communal spaces and residence halls.

In his 2017 survey Abrams asked both administrators and faculty which is more important for colleges and universities to do: maintain an open learning environment by exposing students to all types of speech and viewpoints, even if it means allowing speech that is offensive or biased against certain groups of people OR prohibit certain speech or expression of viewpoints that are offensive or biased against certain groups of people. Seven out of ten professors wanted to create an open environment even if that offended some compared to less than five out of ten administrators.

There is arguably an alternative curriculum being advanced through new student orientation and programs with names like “Stay Healthy, Stay Woke,” “Microaggressions” and “Understanding White Privilege.” Administrators, intentionally or unintentionally, are signaling to students which topics are open to debate and identify which questions should simply be overlooked for fear of negative consequences. The irony is that those who are purportedly working to increase diversity are often the ones who are responsible for limiting the scope for diversity of viewpoints. In the words of Nicholas Kristof, colleges and universities “embrace diversity of all kinds except ideological...We want to be inclusive of people who don’t look like us -- so long as they think like us.”


Taken together the research on students, professors and administrators reveals a clear liberal skew. Studies on campus climate conclusively show that conservatives on campus are considerably reluctant to share their viewpoint freely. This could be mistaken as an issue about the comfort levels of conservative students. But what the evidence also reveals is that it is not just conservatives who are self-censoring. Recall as per the findings of the FIRE survey 53% of both moderates and liberals were also uncomfortable sharing their ideas. It’s certainly noteworthy that the majority of even those on the left “often feel intimidated” sharing ideas that go against the dominant, habitually liberal, views present on campus. This should give us pause to step back and recognize that campus climate is shaped by forces, including, but far beyond the ideological skew of those on campus, such as the fear of censure, peer judgement, etc.

The role that social media and targeted attacks by the right play must also not be overlooked. Cyber harassment of left leaning faculty by right-wing trolls is a well-documented phenomenon. From carefully planned strategies to pillory professors by using their personal messages on social media followed by threats of physical harm and calls for them to be fired (as in the case of Joshua Cuevas, an associate professor at the University of North Georgia, and most recently L.D. Burnett at Collin College), to concerted efforts to malign the character of professors not for statements they made, but for views attributed to them by others, there is evidence of countless coordinated attacks by the right to vilify, harass and delegitimize scholars who lean left. The chilling effect that such attacks have on free speech and academic freedom on campus must be acknowledged.

What’s more, the lack of administrative fortitude to stand behind faculty being attacked sends even more far reaching ripples to stifle open inquiry on campuses. Take the case of Professor Greg Patton, a professor of clinical business communication, who used the word nèige (那个), which means "that" in Mandarin, but is commonly used as a filler word like "um" or "er. Students complained that it sounded like the n-word and he was subsequently removed from teaching the course.

In the wake of this heavy handed decision, the business school's Faculty Council administered an anonymous survey of 105 professors at the Marshall School of Business. Statements from the survey are most concerning: “There was … an overwhelming sense of vulnerability, worry, insecurity, fear, and anxiety.” Moreover, they felt that Patton was reputationally damaged and hung out to dry without due process without any support from the administration. Others shared: “I’m scared to death to teach in this environment”; “faculty will have to walk on egg shells all the time - anyone can be accused of being a racist, bigoted”; “if things are left as they stand now, this will have a very chilling effect on the faculty”; “I will avoid any diversity and inclusion topics and will strictly stick to safe topics, devoid of any potential land mines.”

Regardless of whether campus climate is dominated by liberals or conservatives, as long as professors and students are scared to ask certain questions or share their perspectives, the quality of teaching and learning for all is bound to suffer. Many great ideas about how to organize society, improve the well-being of others, and the skills to think critically about knotty and complex problems have come from our nation’s campuses. Lest we forget this is only possible when vigorous debate and the ability to question, argue, and challenge others is nurtured in colleges and universities. Higher education is at a critical juncture and we would do well to heed this call to resurrect, protect, and promote viewpoint diversity for all our sakes.


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